On persistence: inspiration from history

“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

— Winston Churchill

The quote above comes from a speech that Churchill, then Prime Minister of Great Britain, gave before students at the Harrow School  in 1941.  Churchill is often misquoted as saying, “Never give up,” but this is simply a matter of semantics. The underlying message is the same, and unmistakable.  To quote a slightly less famous but more cherished mentor of mine, Dr. Moyara Ruehsen: “When you’re going through hell, just keep going.”

In our darkest moments, when it seems the odds are stacked against us and each day is a struggle,  we may feel like Churchill did in the midst of the catastrophic events that rocked his country in World War II: “quite alone, desperately alone.” He cautioned the students against placing their hopes in a quick fix or swift victory. Persistence, he told them, was the path by which Great Britain would secure its future.

“But we must learn to be equally good at what is short and sharp and what is long and tough. It is generally said that the British are often better at the last. They do not expect to move from crisis to crisis; they do not always expect that each day will bring up some noble chance of war; but when they very slowly make up their minds that the thing has to be done and the job put through and finished, then, even if it takes months—if it takes years—they do it.”

This is not particularly uplifting advice. We like our stories to have dramatic turnabouts and happy endings with all the loose ends neatly tied up. And indeed, many turning point stories do have moments like that, when “everything changed.” But as anyone who has been through any life challenge will tell you, there are many unglamorous moments, many days of slogging through or just surviving, and weeks, months, and even years of hard work that go into turning one’s ship in a new direction. And it takes tremendous patience and persistence to stay the course.

To those in grim circumstances, facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Churchill’s speech contains an interesting observation and bit of advice that may be even more motivational than his famous “Never give in” line. I’ll close with this, because I think it points the way out of despair, toward the horizon of possibility.

“You cannot tell from appearances how things will go. Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done.”

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